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What Self-Care Means When You Live with a Chronic Condition

Living Well

January 12, 2024

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Photography by miljko/Getty Images

Photography by miljko/Getty Images

by Katy Anderson

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

•••••

by Katy Anderson

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Joslyn Jelinek, LCSW

•••••

Self-care isn’t just about indulgences or quick fixes. Since being diagnosed, it’s allowed me to remain feeling like myself.

We’re often surrounded by messages of self-improvement and wellness. These messages can sometimes feel overwhelming, especially to those of us living with chronic conditions.

The wellness industry has continuously failed to understand the “chronic” nature of our conditions. But a cure isn’t always possible by trying harder, nor is it waiting around the corner with the next wellness fad.

Despite these messages, my relationship with self-care has become more important than I could have ever imagined since being diagnosed with a chronic condition.

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What is self-care?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, self-care means “taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health.”

The idea of self-care has gained popularity over the last several years, and for many of us, it conjures up cliche images of bubble baths and other forms of indulgence.

There’s nothing wrong with indulgences, but true self-care means more than that and addresses our physical, mental, social, spiritual, and emotional well-being. It’s multi-faceted, and it builds resilience.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, self-care means “taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health.”

There was a time when I thought of self-care as more of a luxury. As a mom to three boys, I used to tell myself that I didn’t have time to practice self-care.

Then, I got sick. I developed a chronic autoimmune disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), and suddenly the idea of taking action to preserve my health took on new meaning and immediacy.

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Learning to prioritize self-care

Now that I live with a chronic condition, self-care is no longer an abstract goal or something that I will resolve to do once I have more time. The consequences of neglecting self-care have become more immediate and debilitating for me.

I have discovered that if I don’t take the time to address my health needs on a very regular basis, I will quickly be in a place where I am not able to go about my daily life.

There is a popular quote in the wellness community that illustrates this point. It reads, “If you don’t take time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.”

But taking care of yourself is not an easy mental shift to make. The other day I found myself feeling guilty that my husband was at work, my three sons were at school, and I was exercising at home.

Then I reminded myself how important exercise has become to help manage my RA. Since I’ve prioritized doing my physical therapy exercises consistently, I’ve had fewer days with debilitating pain.

Taking time to do these exercises has made me more productive overall. Self-care keeps me healthy.

There’s a popular quote in the wellness community that illustrates this point. It reads, “If you don’t take time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.” This is a lesson I am having to learn again and again.

What self-care means to me now

For those of us living with a chronic condition, the stakes can feel higher if we ignore self-care. If we push our bodies too far or don’t rest when we need to, we risk having a flare-up of symptoms.

For me, self-care is not so much about self-improvement but health maintenance.

This not only affects us, but can impact those we love as well. It’s important to set boundaries to protect yourself and your well-being by being honest about how you’re feeling.

I’ve learned that it’s an act of self-care to allow for the unpredictability of how I’m going to feel from day to day. Some days I need to take more time to address my health needs than other days.

For me, self-care is not so much about self-improvement but health maintenance. It’s the steps I take to be as healthy as possible as someone who lives with a chronic condition.

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Ways I practice self-care

As someone living with a chronic condition, examples of self-care include staying up to date on doctor appointments, letting my body rest when it needs to, exercising regularly and doing physical therapy to maintain mobility, addressing my mental health, doing what I can to minimize stress, and eating a healthy diet.

Because it’s about more than physical health, self-care for me also means connecting with others who live with a chronic condition and can relate to my experiences, spending time with family and friends where I try not to think about RA at all, and being out in nature.

Self-care can feel like a full-time job

Managing a chronic condition and making time for self-care can be very time-consuming.

This study from 2023 suggests that those living with a chronic condition engage in five “jobs,” one of which is self-care and includes all actions to manage physical and mental symptoms.

One of the most time-consuming parts of my RA journey has been navigating treatment. I have tried five medications so far and have yet to find one that works for me.

This has meant many more trips to the doctor than I expected. Trips to the Rheumatologist (an hour’s drive from my home), as well as the dermatologist, gynecologist, and primary care doctor to address side effects from my RA medications, have taken time away from my work and family.

Then there are the hours I lose simply to pain and fatigue. These are hours my family is robbed of their mother and wife.

It can be frustrating having to devote so much time to self-care when there are often other things I would rather be doing. But I remind myself again: “If you don’t take time for your wellness, you will be forced to make time for your illness.”

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The takeaway: self-care is an act of self-love

Self-care is important for everyone, but for those with chronic conditions it can be more complex. Embracing this complexity is an act of self-love.

I have always struggled to be kind to myself, but now my body needs me to care for it more than ever before.

I have discovered that it’s not selfish to devote time on a daily basis to manage my health and wellness. In fact, it very well may help prevent further disruption and disability.

Self-care means so many things to me now. It means setting boundaries with others and myself so that I don’t overdo it. It means resting, even when it’s not convenient, and it means taking care of my physical and mental health.

So, my goal is to be kinder to myself and to practice self-care without guilt or apology.

Medically reviewed on January 12, 2024

2 Sources

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About the author

Katy Anderson

Katy Anderson is a freelance writer who covers health, mental health, parenting, and relationships for publications such as Huffpost, SingleCare, PopSugar, and others. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2018, and is passionate about spreading awareness and sharing her personal experiences living with this disease. Katy lives with her husband, three sons, and a jovial golden retriever who loves to remind her to stay active. You can find her on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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